Helen is well on its way to becoming a must-visit in Rice Village. The Greek taverna's opening day saw brisk lunch and dinner business, and sightings through the green-painted doors during the restaurant's first seven days in operation showed a busy dining room, guests happily noshing on Chef William Wright's hand-packed pork gyro (it becomes a build-your-own gyro at dinner), stuffed zucchini and squash blossoms, a trio of Mediterranean dips and drinking all the Greek wine co-owner Evan Turner could offer.
Based on the tavernas Turner visited while living in Greece as a kid, Helen brings together that come-as-you-are vibe and fresh, high-end food. So, while you might see that gyro on the menu, it and all of the offerings are much more refined. "There's definitely something Greek about these dishes," explains Turner. "They are classic recipes, but we've put our own spin on them." Take something like the collard green dolomodes, a modern twist on that grape-leaf version so many lovers of Greek food know so well.
"Greens are important to the Greek diet," says Wright. "And collard green are native to the south. So this is the kind of dish that shows the parallels between Greece and Texas." It's stuffed rice and corn, shot through with peppers imported from Greece.
There's a salt-roasted shrimp that arrives with a honey dipping sauce on a bed of salt, rosemary and bay leaves. The octopus is a stand-out, plated atop gigantes beans and a tomato stew. The Greek salad is an explosion of tomato and imported olives and Greek feta and it will be gone come fall, when those core ingredients are no longer in season. The menu is divided into portions that can serve one or two people, dishes like the pile of lamb ribs that can easily accommodate a hungry party of four. On a recent visit, Turner was advising a table about a Greek sauvignon blanc that wouldn't be too sweet, and would work well with an array of dishes.
The former Kahn's Deli has been transformed under the masterful eye of writer and designer Erin Hicks, whose use of mirrors and wall sconces brings an openness and warmth to the shot gun space. "It's a little like the kind of place you'd find in New York, where you're not quite sure what it is, but you walk in and it's this awesome restaurant," commented one diner on opening night. You're not quite in Houston anymore, but you know you're not in downtown Athens. You're somewhere in between, in that space where you realize you're part of a dream come true.
That's enough to have any diner saying, "Al oligo parakalo," ("A little more please.").